After gruesome killings and scenes of destruction, the tide of history has turned, the leaders and spokesmen of the East Timorese resistance movement insist. The agreement that laid out a road map toward the Aug. 30 vote for self-rule and U.N. administration does not give the Indonesian parliament the right to ratify or veto the choice for independence, emphasized Jose Ramos-Horta, the Nobel laureate and professor who has spoken out passionately about the plight of his compatriots since Indonesia invaded East Timor in 1975. This is not the view of the Indonesian government, which plans a formal vote on the issue next month.

"Even in the worst-case scenario, if the assembly rejects the vote, there is a fait accompli on the ground. The whole international community is talking about East Timor's independence and sanctions against Indonesia," he told Washington Post editors and reporters yesterday.

Ramos-Horta is going home in a couple of weeks after 24 years in exile and a long journey dedicated to raising world awareness about his people's plight. He will be returning with resistance movement leader Xanana Gusmao, following a round of meetings with U.S. and World Bank officials in Washington and a swing through Europe.

The majority of the population is under the protection of Falintil, the independence guerrilla movement, but there are pockets of pro-Indonesian militias, Gusmao said. He called for an internationally manned buffer zone between resistance areas and zones held by the Indonesian militias opposed to East Timor's independence. The Indonesian military, he warned, is still strong and capable of disrupting the independence process.

"We are reduced to the minimum of our capacity and we are spread thin, taking care of the refugees," he said.

Gusmao said all the independence guerrillas are under his command and said it is unfair to ask them to disarm since they have respected all agreements during the process, never complicated the situation and are on a "defensive alert." "We fought Indonesian troops, not the East Timorese," he added.

Ramos-Horta, who is effectively East Timor's foreign minister, told of how the independence leaders ordered their men to stop fighting two weeks ago and to stay in the garrisons, averting what could have become a massive battle after the vote. Ten years ago, they could not smuggle a camera into East Timor, Ramos-Horta said, and now they have satellite phones. Their guerrillas are communicating through the Internet, and orders to the rebels to hold their fire were relayed through mobile phones to their mountaintop strongholds. The rationale for staying put was that Indonesian soldiers were waiting to fight and "we did not want to be drawn into their game and their orchestration of violence in a civil war," he said. "We were ready to accept and receive victims, but to save our country. We never expected such a dimension in the rampage that followed."

On war crimes and the possible creation of a tribunal, Gusmao said the atrocities inflicted on his countrymen could no longer be accepted as the next millennium approaches. "My brother, you will come to a country of widows. Our men are being killed," a bishop trapped in the turmoil told Ramos-Horta by phone one day. "Since then we have heard of reports of people taken to ships and dumped into the sea, with bodies washing ashore. We have heard of mass graves being uncovered. The Indonesian reasons for not leaving are not because of economic resources," Ramos-Horta said. "They know what they did. And they know the truth will really hound them."

He and Gusmao met with Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright and national security adviser Samuel R. "Sandy" Berger and lunched with senior brass at the Pentagon. February 1997 was the first time in 21 years that anyone at the State Department agreed to meet with him. Because of "sheer will," the East Timorese survived five American administrations that supplied weapons to Indonesia, he said at the time.

Gusmao's presence is needed "on the ground," he said, to establish "our own administration on the territory." The task of building institutions, the courts, a police force and infrastructure is going to be "monumental," he said, adding, "We are proceeding cautiously toward independence because this [task] can only happen over a course of one to three years." He said a special trust fund set up under U.N. auspices will pay for the infrastructure and state expenditures while the East Timorese set up their own skeleton administration parallel to U.N. structures. Contacts with the World Bank, more than 20 countries, the European Union and the Asian-Development Bank have already been made. When asked when East Timor will ask for formal recognition, Ramos-Horta said this question has been referred to the East Timor resistance movement as the "interlocutor with the international community."

CAPTION: Jose Ramos-Horta says the independence of East Timor is a "fait accompli."